By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government will make 400 million non-surgical N95 masks from its strategic national stockpile available for free to the public starting next week, a White House official said, marking the Biden administration's latest effort to help curb the COVID-19 pandemic.
The face masks will be shipped to pharmacies and community health centers this week, the official said, and available for pickup late next week.
The move comes after President Joe Biden and his team faced criticism for not doing enough to foster masking or bolster testing as the Omicron variant raged across the country.
Addressing that criticism and the wave, the administration has made free tests available via a website that launched officially on Wednesday in addition to its announcement about deploying masks from the strategic reserve.
"This is the largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history," the official said.
"To ensure accessing these masks is easy and convenient, the administration is leveraging the federal retail pharmacy program and the federal community health center program, so that free masks are available at many of the same convenient and trusted locations Americans go to get vaccinated and boosted," the official said.
The masks will be available at tens of thousands of pharmacies and thousands of community health centers with supplies available by the end of next week, the official said. "The program will be fully up and running by early February."
Masks like the N95 that form a seal around the nose and mouth are considered especially effective at preventing virus spread. Last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that Americans wear the "the most protective mask" that they can.
Biden's team previously said there is ample supply to share the masks.
Hospitals have recovered from the desperate N95 shortages of the early pandemic, but several executives told Reuters that healthcare supply chains remain fragile and that small and poorly funded hospitals are at most risk if Americans make N95s their "everyday" masks.
U.S. mask makers told Reuters they have the machines to make millions of N95s each month.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)